An Illustrated Supplement to Deep Water
When I tell people that I've written a book about dams, many respond by mentioning Three Gorges, the monster dam-in-progress that bisects the Yangtze River in China. Their intent seems to be to show that they're familiar with dam controversy, but few of them realize that Three Gorges is only one of 45,000 dams in the world more than five stories high, and not even the most contentious one at that. Those 45,000 dams have displaced at least forty to eighty million people, most of whom were devastated by the experience. Even that statistic is misleading, for it omits the far larger number of people living downstream from dams, who while not forced to move, lost something essential to their well-being— fish, other animals, or plants— when dams scrambled their rivers' flow. Nor does it begin to suggest the environmental havoc that dams cause— a devastation that extends all the way downstream to estuaries, beaches, and oceans.
Deep Water is a work of narrative nonfiction. It's meant to illustrate dams' consequences by portraying three people who have contended with them in quite distinct ways. One is Medha Patkar, the world's foremost antidam activist, who during a decade and a half of protest over a dam in Western India repeatedly tried drowning herself in rising reservoir waters and went on hunger strikes of up to 26 days; I visited her in a remote western India outpost as she prepared for a drowning attempt. Another is Thayer Scudder, an American anthropologist considered the world's foremost authority on dam resettlement, who has spent nearly half a century studying the calamitous impact of a dam on 57,000 displaced people in Africa's Zambezi River Valley; with him, I travelled to dam sites in Lesotho and Botswana, and went without him to meet the Zambian resettlers in all their disarray. The third is Don Blackmore, chief executive of the commission charged with managing Australia's only major river system, the Murray-Darling, who, in the face of the Murray's grave decline, devoted his tenure to persuading farmers and politicians to return some irrigation water to the river; sometimes in Blackmore's company, sometimes not, I travelled to sites all along the Murray.
In the three sections that follow, I've tried to provide a taste of the book by illustrating it with pictures taken during the trips with my three subjects. I've matched the photographs with shards of Deep Water text that here serve as captions.